St Anthony continues with his recollections of Celtic games he has attended through the years. In this one he recalls Martin O’Neill’s first game as Celtic manager at a sunny Tannadice in 2000 as a genuine new era dawned at Parkhead.
Setting the scene
In the summer of 2000 the Celtic board were said to be in a dilemma of who to appoint as the new Celtic manager. The expensive experiment of the previous season, of John Barnes as head coach and Kenny Dalglish as Director of Football, had not been a success and the board were said to be looking for an experienced ‘manager’ in the true sense, someone who could come in and inspire what was admittedly an excellent group pf players already at the club.
In the end it came down to a straight choice between Guus Hiddink and Martin O’Neill. Experienced Dutchman, Hiddink, was certainly courted by Celtic’s CEO, Allan MacDonald, but legend has it that Dermot Desmond insisted on his fellow Irishman, Martin O’Neill, and as with most things in life, Dermot normally gets what he wants. So O’Neill became Celtic’s eighth manager in just ten years, an incredible statistic, with Celtic desperate for some stability.
O’Neill’s first actions was to pay £10m for Belgian defender, Joos Valgaeren and English striker, Chris Sutton. Eyes were certainly raised at Celtic splashing £6m on Sutton, who had endured a miserable season at Chelsea in 1999-00. He was a target man style forward and Celtic had never played that type of player for many years, always preferring the smaller, more mobile style of forward. Celtic fans were certainly intrigued to see what Sutton would bring to the team.
That summer, Celtic fans had watched with baited breath as their star player, Henrik Larsson, returned from injury with Sweden in the European Championships, after recovering from a horrendous injury from the previous campaign. The good news was that Larsson looked sharp for Sweden and was now looking to make up lost ground from such a wasted season.
So the scene was set at a packed Tannadice on a delightful Sunday summer’s afternoon on a perfect pitch.
Every supporter within the ground was shocked to see the colour schemes as the teams lined up. United forsook their familiar tangerine and black strip to wear an unusual concoction of green jerseys, white shorts and white socks. This was said to be in tribute to their early days as Dundee Hibernian before they became Dundee United. Celtic, for their part, looked resplendent in their new change strip of gold shits, dark green shorts and dark green socks.
Celtic started at a fast pace which many had expected under O’Neill. They looked fluent in a new 3-5-2 formation with McNamara and Mahe playing as attacking wing backs. The Celtic supporters were delighted to see Larsson looking sharp as a tack and he had several efforts at goal before he opened the scoring in 37 minutes. Chris Sutton looked to have been fouled at the edge of the penalty area but as the ball broke to Larsson he sent a glorious left foot shot curling past Alan Combe.
Celtic were worth their lead at half time but were set back on 49 minutes when United equalised. Jonathan Gould totally misjudged a corner kick which allowed young 18 year old defender, David McCracken to head home to level the game with O’Neill looking on in anger at his hapless keeper from the bench. There was media talk at the time of O’Neill being interested in Manchester United’s out of favour goalie, Mark Bosnich, and this goal would certainly not have endeared him to Gould.
That goal knocked Celtic out their stride for a short period but it was noticeable that the partnership of Sutton and Larsson up front, was starting to blossom. Sutton scored after Larsson cleverly hooked the ball across goal from the bye line only for a linesman to flag that the ball was out. Television footage showed that this decision was incorrect. United were now desperately holding on as Celtic pushed them back. In 66 minutes Combe made a fine save from a McNamara volley and the ball broke to Mahe who fired a hard cross across goal for Sutton to turn it into the net. Sutton had looked a bit short of fitness in his first game but he had stuck to his task and was rewarded for his perseverance with the winning goal.
As the final whistle went the Celtic fans roared their approval. O’Neill walked along the track to the tunnel leaping with joy and saluting the fans who were loudly chanting his name it was clear that Celtic’s new manager had already created a strong rapport with the supporters. It was also obvious, after just one game, that this wasn’t the heartless Celtic of the previous season but a new energetic team which would give their all for the cause. O’Neill would accept no less.
If the Celtic fans were happy on that summer’s night in Dundee they would become more and more ecstatic as the season wore on. The 2000-01 season went down in history as one of Celtic’s best with Martin O’Neill and his team winning the Scottish treble, a feat achieved just twice in the club’s history by the great Jock Stein in 1967 and 1969. Larsson went on to achieve legend status with an astonishing 53 goals in 51 games with a plethora of new signings, Didier Agathe, Alan Thompson, Rab Douglas, Neil Lennon and Ramon Vega all joining the Celts to add even more talent to an already fine team.
Make no mistake, during his spell as Celtic manager, Martin O’Neill changed the axis of Scottish football. Until then Rangers had won 12 of the previous 14 league titles. Since then Celtic have won 15 of the next 20. We were not to know it at Tannadice but the times they were changing. And for Celtic, things were about to get a whole lot better.
And it’s often crossed my mind in later years; just what would have happened if we’d signed Guus Hiddink ?